Changing the Way We Work
First-time visitors to GW’s new Science and Engineering Hall (SEH) push open the doors at any one of its entrances and are immediately struck by the light-filled and open commons spaces. And when they glance down to the atrium below—which they always do—they can’t help but notice the vibrant display of its green wall, one of the building’s three. And then, as they start to make their way through the building, they usually do a double-take at the glass walls, designed to be written on and covered with equations, lines of computer code, or simple lists of processes and tasks.
What most impresses them, however, are the labs and the classrooms—the spaces where SEAS students and faculty teach and learn, discover and invent. These are the spaces where we work, and the new SEH is changing the way we do that. In the process, it is proving to be exactly what we expected it to be: the enabler of our ambitions.
Thriving in our new home
Some say that “seeing is believing.” And it’s true that being able to see the gleaming, new, state-of-the-art, eight-story building standing at the intersection of 22nd and H Streets certainly helps one understand the myriad new research possibilities that the SEH creates for SEAS faculty. No one sees the possibilities more clearly than the researchers themselves and the aspiring faculty candidates we meet each semester who are competing for a chance to teach and research in the SEH.
Even during the building’s planning and construction phases, the SEH was a powerful magnet, drawing in the talented and dedicated faculty SEAS has recruited recently. These are assistant, associate, and full professors who saw the possibilities for their research to flourish at GW and chose to start their careers here, or leave very well established labs at other universities, to work alongside new colleagues in the SEH.
With access to the state-of-the-art core facilities—the high bay, nanofabrication lab, and microscopy suite—and a host of other labs, these recently recruited faculty are building thriving research programs and driving record research success for SEAS.
Assistant Professor Zhenyu Li, a member of the new Department of Biomedical Engineering faculty, received a four-year, $2 million National Institutes of Health research grant this past fall to develop ambulatory sensor arrays to monitor children with asthma. He will work on this highly innovative project with colleagues in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Children’s National Medical Center. Using the building’s ultraclean nanofabrication lab, Dr. Li will be able to design, build, and test these and other sensors on site, something previously impossible for GW researchers. Less time(and frustration) spent working at outside facilities means more time and faster turnaround for Dr. Li’s research.
Like Dr. Li, Assistant Professor Volker Sorger of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering also is prospering in the SEH nanofabrication lab. Dr. Sorger studies photonics, which is optics integrated on a chip, to create the nanoscale chips necessary to develop computers that will operate on light rather than electronics.
As a doctoral student, he was part of a University of California-Berkley team that used a technique called plasmonics to create the world’s smallest semiconductor laser, and he is continuing that research here at SEAS. His efforts have been very fruitful. In just over 16 months, he has won three Air Force Office of Scientific Research grants—including a prestigious Young Investigator Program award—and a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Together, these grants total more than $2 million.
Associate Professor Lijie Grace Zhang studies novel 3D bioprinting techniques to help advance the development of tissue and organ replacements. Being able to regenerate complex tissues, such as vascularized bone, cartilage, and muscle, is one of the current obstacles researchers face to creating human organs using 3D printers. This is where Dr. Zhang’s highly innovative research is making its mark: in 2014 she received a five-year, $2.2 million Director’s New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH awards these very prestigious grants to support unusually creative researchers early in their careers.
Dr. Zhang’s colleague in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Dr. Kausik Sarkar, stands to benefit greatly from the SEH microscopy, or imaging, suite. A full professor, he conducts research on ultrasound imaging, drug delivery and therapy, and high-fidelity simulation of blood rheology. In addition to his existing grants from the NSF and NIH, Dr. Sarkar won a four-year, $1.2 million R01 grant last fall from the NIH. He and his colleagues will study ultrasound imaging and the delivery of anticancer drugs to prostate cancer tissues.
A number of other recently recruited SEAS faculty do not conduct their research in the SEH core lab facilities but profit from the building’s other lab spaces or simply from being able to collaborate more easily with their SEAS colleagues, now that the school’s six departments are housed under one roof.
Instead of a six-block walk across campus to visit SEAS faculty from other departments, the faculty of the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering now take the stairs or elevators to collaborate with them. The accomplishments of two of the department’s more recent hires, Assistant Professor David Broniatowski and Assistant Professor Zoe Szajnfarber, also demonstrate the record research success that SEAS is enjoying in the new SEH. Dr. Broniatowski recently received a $1.5 million R01 grant from the NIH’s National Institutes of General Medical Sciences for his survey research on attitudes about getting vaccinated, and Dr. Szajnfarber was most recently awarded a nearly $1 million INSPIRE grant from NSF. INSPIRE is a special grant that supports highly interdisciplinary research that has unusual transformative potential.
Setting new records
New faculty are not alone in understanding the benefits the SEH brings to engineering at GW. Prospective students seem to understand it, too.
Undergraduate enrollment has risen 50 percent over the past six years. As of fall 2015, it stood at 880 students, with particularly strong growth in our computer science, biomedical engineering, and mechanical engineering programs. And we are particularly proud that 38 percent of our undergraduate students are female, almost twice the national average for engineering schools.
Systems engineering, the school’s newest undergraduate program, also has shown remarkable growth, increasing from approximately 20 to 120 students in just five years. With the large number of engineering consulting firms in the Washington, DC-Metro area, job prospects for these students is proving to be excellent.
At the graduate level, enrollment is also very strong and will continue to grow as we add new online degrees in our professional engineering program. The first of these, a doctor of engineering degree in engineering management, was initiated in August 2015; by summer 2016 we anticipate an enrollment of 100 working professionals. To meet the strong need, particularly in the US, for biomedical engineering professionals who understand the regulatory process and can advance medical device and imaging diagnostics and therapies to market, we have created a second new program, a master of engineering in regulatory biomedical engineering. This program—which draws on faculty in SEAS and in GW’s medical, public health, and law schools—started in spring 2016 and already is off to a good start. It is a truly interdisciplinary degree program with enormous potential, not just locally, but nationally and internationally.
Attracting new investments
If success, in fact, breeds success, then the SEH also should help attract new investment in SEAS. The numbers suggest that this already is happening, that the SEH is acting as a beacon to do just that.
SEAS has achieved record fundraising levels in the last six years, the period after the university’s announcement of its commitment to build the SEH. Funds raised by the school in fiscal year 2015 were more than quadruple those raised in fiscal year 2010, and the trend shows a steady increase throughout the six-year period. The school also far surpassed what it achieved in the previous six-year period, fiscal years 2004 through 2009. Compared to that period, SEAS nearly tripled its fundraising during the current six-year period.
The new funds make possible a whole range of investment by the school—investments in new faculty, student scholarships and activities, research equipment, new academic programs, and more.
Endowed professorships are a particularly important investment, because they play a crucial role in attracting leaders who can build nationally recognized education and research programs. Through the generosity of our donors, SEAS was fortunate enough to establish two endowed professorships in 2014 and 2015, and recruit internationally recognized scholars to the faculty.
In January 2015, Dr. Igor Efimov joined SEAS as the Alisann and Terry Collins Professor and chair of the new Department of Biomedical Engineering. In September 2015, the new chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Dr. Ahmed Louri, was installed as the David and Marilyn Karlgaard Professor.
The combination of an endowed professorship and the research facilities of the SEH creates a powerful set of incentives to be able to offer faculty candidates, and they give SEAS the chance to compete with the very best universities in recruiting the very best faculty.
Realizing our ambitions
The SEH is not the crowning achievement of our work here at SEAS. It’s really more of a launch pad of sorts, an engineering achievement in its own right that enables us to reach heights we otherwise couldn’t reach. Or maybe it’s better conceived of as a command module—the control center and living quarters—for intrepid engineers and computer scientists on a voyage of discovery. Either way, it changes the way we work and opens the door for a stunning number of discoveries along the way. And for that, we celebrate our new, amazing, versatile SEH, the enabler of our ambitions.